The wreck of the R.M.S. Titanic aside from being the very first image that comes to mind when one considers the words “maritime archaeology” or “shipwreck” ; has always been a focal point of controversy since the ship sank April 14, 1912 and when it was first discovered September 1, of 1985. Admittedly, reading the stories of Dr. Robert Ballard and the Titanic had an impression on this author when he was young and may have helped to inspire this author into attempting a career in maritime archaeology. The Titanic still commonly appears in the news in the 100 years since it’s sinking and volumes could be written about this wrecks various controversies. This brief blog post is going to attempt to discuss both of the most recent news pieces regarding the shipwreck from an archaeological perspective.
Part I: The R.M.S Titanic & Egyptian Artifacts
In a recent symposium titled “Egypt: The Future of the Past” Egyptologist Bassam el-Shamma had called for the recovery of pharaonic artifacts that had sunk with the doomed vessel. One of the passengers, a woman by the name of Margaret Touban had a collection of Egyptian statues that she was taking with her to America. He has a photograph of the statue that Margaret had in her possession. Bassam wanted the government to contact movie director and submarine adventurer James Cameron to furnish them a map of the wreck in order to find these artifacts. Bassam el-Shamma has been a huge proponent and advocate of Egyptian historic preservation; preservation of the Sphinx, returning of Mummies from the world over to Egypt and desires the reconstruction of the Lighthouse of Alexandria as a heritage tourist attraction.
Repatriation of Egyptian artifacts is a major issue effecting museums and archaeologists today. In less enlightened times it was a common practice to travel to Egypt for the expressed purposes of recovering artifacts as souvenirs from the trip. This act has been done since Roman times. In fact, there was a specialty ship that was constructed around carrying an obelisk from Egypt to London in 1877 dubbed the Cleopatra.
This was not archaeology, this was simply taking ancient artifacts to put on display back at home with the rest of the curios. Eventually they may be donated to museums or museums would send people to recover Egyptian artifacts to be put on display; such as the case may be. Today, it is the position of many Egyptians that their heritage should be returned to them. Rightly So! It is also the position of this author that people who have had their history stolen from them should have it returned. Although, it is not that easy. This ethical desire for artifacts to be returned is what accounts for this news piece.
There are however, several unfortunate problems with this plan of recovering Egyptian artifacts from the Titanic. The Titanic is a deep wreck laying at about 12,415 feet of water. Traveling down to that depth is comparable to traveling into outer space. It certainly can be done but, it’s a challenge. Diving deep wrecks requires a huge investment of resources. If there was this Egyptian expedition and they were furnished with both a site map and a room number for Margaret Touban. There would still be the issue of whether or not the wreck of the Titanic could be penetrated to the location of the room or even if the artifacts had not shifted during either the sinking or due to the deterioration of the wreck since the sinking. Such action has the potential to further damage the wreck. Is the trade-off of recovering artifacts versus damaging a shipwreck worth the risk?
The presence of Egyptian artifacts aboard the wreck of Titanic adds to the integrity of the wreck being an expression of Edwardian England. 1912 was at the very height of the practice of traveling to Egypt to procure artifacts. Therefore the wreck is a time capsule commemorating that particular activity of elites traveling to exotic foreign lands and bringing back artifacts with them. A shipwrecks cargo, no matter what it was is apart of the wrecks history and its this material culture can tell us much about the people who were on this ship and about the time the ship was used. The cargo is apart of that ships story and cannot be separated from it. Traveling into the Titanic for the recovery of just Egyptian artifacts would do just that. If this recovery was done archaeologically with respect to the wreck and its other associated artifacts then such an attempt would be ethical.
Much like Egypt, the wreck of the Titanic has been nothing if not disrespected with each subsequent expedition recovering more and more artifacts to be put on display or sold much like the commemorative “titanic coal” that you can still purchase none of this recovery has been done with the respect that archaeology provides. The reason why archaeology has taken so long to occur is largely due to technological limitations to doing archaeology at 12,000 feet. Every dive only spotted a small fraction of the wreck; like shining a flashlight in a large room only seeing just outside the beam of light. No site plan or comprehensive map could be created, it was easier just to recover the artifacts encountered. Although Dr. Robert Ballard attempted to preserve the wreck and the gravesite of the deaths of 15,000 people with the RMS Titanic Memorial Act the pillaging still happened. Largely because the wreck is in international waters. Recovering the Egyptian artifacts although well-intentioned would be no different.
” Each of those dives added incrementally to our knowledge of Titanic, but the ability to do a basic detailed survey, map with accuracy, and measure—let alone impose the archaeological discipline of a grid and units, as one would on a divable underwater site—remained elusive…. We see scoop marks that show where selected pieces have been plucked from clusters of artifacts—no grids, no scientific sampling—simply for their display or monetary value. What is happening here, two-and-one-half miles down and out of sight of much of the world, is not archaeology. . . . In short, other than the well-known intact bow section and the stern and the sub pilots’ recollections, no detailed “road map,” let alone a highly detailed archaeological site plan, exists.” -James Delgado
Titanic only recently has been treated as an archaeological site. In 2010 a Multi-agency expedition set out to image the wreck site completely and because of those efforts we now have a complete map of the wreck site and a deeper understanding of the wreck and its site formation processes.
Part II: R.M.S Titanic The Ultimate Destination in Heritage Tourism?
A British company, Blue Marble Private announced that it will be offering dives to the Titanic wreck site beginning in May of 2018. The cost of such a trip? $105,129 a person. In their press release Blue Marble Private declared that adjusted for inflation this is roughly equivalent to a first class ticket on the doomed liner. This apparently is not the first time that a tourism company offered trips to the wreck Deep Oceans Expeditions had slightly cheaper Titanic expedition since 1998 ending in 2012 (as it was the centennial). Blue Marble Private will working in conjunction with OceanGate Expeditions who will be furnishing the purpose-built submarine for these trips the Cyclops II.
The trip will give you the title of Mission specialist, a part of the expedition team and part of your job will be to conduct sonar scans for various targets on the shipwreck such as the boiler, propellers and other landmarks. Truly an immersive experience, you even get to play at being a scientist. Your itinerary will have three days on site with a dive each day at three hours each.
Now, an objection to tourism of the Titanic is that Blue Marble Private (and others) would be profiting off one of the worst maritime disasters in human history. That tourism like this is the desecration of a grave site. Here’s the thing: shipwreck tourism is something that’s on the rise and has been on the rise. As of this writing, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association is currently in the final phases of designating two new marine sanctuaries purely on their merit that each contains shipwrecks of immeasurable historical value The Mallows Bay Marine Sanctuary in Maryland and the North Lake Michigan Marine Sanctuary in Wisconsin. Each of the sanctuaries is going to organize these landmarks not just for their preservation but also for the purpose of tourism. Part of the goal of these sanctuaries is to engage with people to gain people’s interests in historic shipwrecks. Not only that countries like Albania want to promote tourism to their country based on the shipwrecks in their waters. Most of these shipwrecks are going to involve a loss of human life, it is apart of the nature of shipwrecks. Another example from terrestrial archaeology is Effigy mounds that I’ve discussed in my first blog post. Effigy mounds are all burial sites that is part of the reason why they were created in the first place. Many Effigy mounds such as the Man Mound north of Baraboo, Wisconsin are their own parks that you can visit.
I don’t believe there is any desecration in visiting a site; the desecration comes from trying to destroy a site or take any artifacts from it, or dump garbage at the site. After nearly 30 years of exploration Titanic is littered with ballast dropped from submersibles much akin to the pile of air tanks at the summit of Mt. Everest. Also all the placards left behind at Titanic to commemorate an expedition (there are literally dozens). It has been found that in 20-30 years the Titanic wreck site will be no more than a rust spot on the bottom of the North Atlantic due to the types of bacteria literally eating the ship away. I think that people should have at least have a chance to see it before its gone and with something as powerful as the Titanic with their own eyes before its gone, it’s a vanishing resource. Blue Marble could really make the passengers into scientists; as they will be performing presumably routine tours of the Titanic they could keep a record log of observations made with each visit to the site. As long as the tourism is done respectfully, I don’t see the problem.
There is however, the issue of price: this Expedition will only be available to the ultra rich although, the costs of deploying a mini-sub in the middle of the north Atlantic are nearly astronomical. In such cases that is what the various Titanic museums and institutions are for. It would also require brave souls willing to cram into a submarine to dive to 12,000 feet. In summation, I admit my bias, a trip of this kind does ignite a boyhood fantasy of my own to go down and visit the wreck of the Titanic therefore I am not opposed to it. I hope this blog post provides some food for thought.
Sources & Resources:
Al-Masry Al-Youm. Pharaonic Relics Submerged With Titanic Must Be Recovered: Egyptologist. Egypt Independent
Delgado, James Archaeology of Titanic. Archaeology Magazine Vol. 65 No. 3. 2012 (One of my favorite articles)
You Can Will Soon Have The Opportunity to Tour The Wreck of The Titanic On A Diving Expedition. Lonely Planet
Titanic: Diving Tours of Wreck Site To Begin in 2018. CNN
Blue Marble Private Tours
Macquire, Eoghan End of An Era For Tourist Trips To Ghostly Wreck of Titanic. CNN
Smith, Graham First It Was An Iceburg Now It’s Bacteria: Rust-Eating Species “Will Destroy Wreck of Titanic Within 20 Years. Daily Mail
Mallows Bay – Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary
Wisconsin – Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary
NOAA Moves To Conserve Shipwrecks In Two New Sanctuaries
Daley, Jason Albania Wants To Show Off Is Shipwrecks. Smithsonian Magazine